The August 4th blast in Beirut, Lebanon, can easily be described as the first of its kind and a national tragedy. Around 2,100 tons of Ammonium Nitrate shook a city and a country down to its foundations, bringing the infrastructure to its knees, and the economy to a standstill. But nobody knew that the feeling of powerlessness would do most of the damage later on. Nobody could be ready for such a disaster. Nobody could imagine a disaster so big it would cross borders, break hearts but still, somehow, bring people so close together. Immediately after the blast, the international community came to Lebanon’s aid. Paramedics, medication, and first responders were flown in to assist the Lebanese people in a time of struggle like never before.
At Augment, our Lebanese roots made work reach a standstill after the explosion. For those of us in Lebanon, a nightmare started to becoming reality, while those of us still abroad could not take our eyes off social media and the news in general. The pain was too great. But soon after the explosion, NGOs started to flood the streets. Masses of Lebanese people, mainly youth, submerged the streets of the capital to come to aid to those in need. From cleaning crews, reconstruction, damage assessment, to food and beverage, the Lebanese people put aside their differences to come together. Some walked over 80 kilometers during a global pandemic just to bring a pair of hands – and a shovel or two – to where they were needed. The initiative by the great people at Basecamp inspired us. A couple of days after the blast, we were on the ground. We wanted to help and we were not alone.
Digitization was always one of Augment’s strong suits. Whether 3D modeling or topography mapping, we had the tools and the software to bring accurate geographic data to first responders, NGOs, and volunteers. These different groups work to save lives or minimize damage, and rely on accurate geographic information to coordinate operations. The more people have information about impacted areas, the more effective their response.
There was no accurate data for damage assessment, no efficient sharing platform between actors and data Colection was repeated inefficiently. Traditional surveying was taking too long as the blast had affected an area with a radius of to 5km originating at the Beirut port. Data repartition was inefficient and sometimes even redundant. This is why we thought of drone-based mapping technology. Drone-based damage assessment is an alternative approach to support or replace labor-intensive surveying. With skilled engineers and surveyors being overwhelmed and mainly volunteers, we thought we could help provide support and data to these great people.
As drones provide the ability to access hard to reach places in little time and with minimal human risk, their popularity is growing as they complement human work to save time and money while increasing safety. Because drones can be quickly deployed over disaster zones, rescuers and damage assessment groups are using them to produce 3D maps, 2D plans, scan for victims, and assess damaged infrastructure. As drones provide the ability to access hard to reach places in little time and with minimal human risk, their popularity is growing as they complement human work to save time and money while increasing safety.
Our initial plan was to support Basecamp in its operations. With no previous funding, no experience, and no help, they still managed to have an incredible impact on the ground and ended up leading at the forefront with reconstruction effort. One of the first issues that Basecamp encountered was the removal of rubble. As activists without heavy machinery, they had to be both careful and selective about their operations. It was for organizations that share the vision of a common mission, and a hope for a better tomorrow, that Augment decided to apply its technical know-how. Drone modeling and mapping could prove to be extremely useful in the reconstruction effort.
The 3D map could help with the identification and removal of rubble as an initial step, but in order to create it we had to get drones flying. This however proved to be a challenge as a single copter drone could not cover the entire affected area. Our next step became clear: we had to ask the community to help us. While reaching out to others to support in the call for drones, we realized that we needed to create a coalition of like-minded organizations. By doing so, we encountered a community eager to help, and came in contact with the Open Maps Lebanon initiative and the Live Love Beirut association. These partners helped Augment get in contact with authorities, namely the Lebanese Armed Forces’ Forward Emergency Room (FER), in order to get licenses to fly drones over Beirut.
In addition to getting support in the drone call, we were introduced to the concept of Open Data and its value. Open Data has proven its usefulness in previous crisis around the world, but was however still in its infancy in Lebanon. Availability of information had always been one of our core value at Augment, we believe that the right data in talented hands was an incredible tool, and that Lebanon does not lack talented people.
Within a few days, we met incredible people and day after day the coalition was expanding with new actors wanting to help. But obtaining flight licenses for drones was more complicated than expected. As most volunteer pilots weren’t allowed to operate under their current license, an alternative had to be sought.
Luckily all the pieces came falling down together upon meeting other actors. Through Open Maps Lebanon, we got the opportunity to meet NAR, Pix4D, and Geospatial minds. Together, we launched an initiative to provide the disaster relief effort with accurate 3D data of the disaster area, each having a specific role to fulfill: Geospatial Minds would provide licensed drones and pilots; Pix4D would provide software and processing solutions; the LiveLove Beirut organization would facilitate contact with the FER; back in Luxembourg, DCL Avocats would help with creating a superlative legal precedent with focus on General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Creative Commons licensing for Open Data availability; Augment would provide coordination and lead the effort from a technical and practical point of view. It is paramount to mention all our partners agreed to provide their services free of charge, just like the entire initiative. We, as well as all the people affected, are extremely grateful.
Along with Open Maps Lebanon and the FER, we were able to agree on the accessibility of the generated data: as a first in Lebanon, both the 3D and Point Cloud models generated would be available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).
Being protected from commercial usage, the 3D model and Point Cloud files can be used for a multiplicity of purposes as the accuracy of the models allow for detailed analysis: whether flood modeling, damage analysis, remote inspection, or condition assessment, the academic and humanitarian communities can derive tremendous value for Lebanon.
Hopefully, this unique journey can help in setting a path in multiple directions critical to innovation and technological advancement. We were proud to work alongside our partners, and hope to have played a part – however small – in helping Lebanon get back on its feet.
Augment 2021. All rights reserved.